Jackie Broxton remembers the day the riots swept through her city, when the only way to get back to her car after church was to brave the flames and plumes of smoke that had engulfed the surrounding streets of South L.A.
She needed to get her daughter home to Ladera Heights, and for a moment she thought she would have to walk from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church down rubble-ridden West Adams Boulevard. Luckily, a fellow parishioner offered to drive her around the corner.
“You came out of church with a sense of hope, but you got outside and it was chaos,” she said.
Broxton, 69, was among about 100 others who gathered across the street from the church at the Allen House gardens Saturday afternoon to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1992 riots. City officials and members of the African American and Korean communities gathered at the home of the oldest black congregation in L.A. to promote a single message: unity.
“If we don’t find a way to work together, it could happen again,” Broxton said.
Leaders from both communities pledged to work together in what they described as a special day — the event marked the first time the two groups came together to commemorate the riots, said Laura Jeon, president of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles.
“Twenty-five years ago, Koreatown was in chaos, its buildings charred and its community in ruins,” Jeon told the crowd. “If the Korean community and the African American community had been communicating back in 1992, the pain, agony, anger felt by both communities might have been avoided.”
The riots are considered the “greatest injury and tragedy to the Korean community” in the history of Korean immigration, she added.
The event was among many in a week recalling the riots, which left 63 people dead, another 2,000 people injured and roughly $1 billion in property damage across the city.
In an unscheduled moment Saturday at another event at a Koreatown church, Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu enthusiastically dragged a man by his arm up to the stage.
Ryu, the first Korean American to serve on the council, recounted how he and the man, Nathan Redfern, had worked together more than 20 years ago in the years following the riots. Ryu, then a fresh college graduate, and Redfern, a former Crips gang member, worked together at a Koreatown nonprofit’s dispute resolution center.
Ryu recalled how the two men would go out to businesses in East and South L.A. to help resolve conflicts between Korean store owners and their customers, defusing the types of tense situations that led to the riots.
Later, they worked on a citizenship project, Ryu teaching classes in English as a second language and Redfern giving mock citizenship exams at the Korean American Coalition, the councilman said.
“We used to go out together, arm in arm,” Ryu said at the event organized by the Korean Churches for Community Development. “The L.A. riots was not a black-Korean issue. It was a poverty issue; it was an issue of language barriers.”
The day’s program included a joint choir performance of Korean, black and Latino groups singing “We Shall Overcome.” Congressional candidate Robert Lee Ahn, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang — the latter two poised for the governor’s race — also made an appearance.